new study has found that strategically distributed HIV self tests have the potential to not just boost HIV screening rates, but encourage users to seek out treatment and recommend the method to peers also at risk.

Rewind to the mid 1980s, when HIV infections in the United States were at their peak and researchers were first looking into the development of rapid self tests, and such promising results will be impossible to find. The narrative constructed by public health officials around HIV self tests and home testing kits was the opposite of hopeful—alleging instead that do it yourself diagnostics would spread the disease, not prevent it.

That logic derived less from actual scientific evidence than it did from a highly paternalistic attitude towards disease management, not to mention the social stigma around HIV/AIDS that, for so long, kept those in dire need of screening and treatment from accessing either. The history of HIV self tests, from their ill fated conception up to contemporary products and policies, raises a broader question: what happens when regulatory agencies use unproven assumptions to determine whether a medical product is safe and effective?

As the former chief executive officer of Cambridge Biotech, one of the companies that unsuccessfully attempted to obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration for an early AIDS self test, it is a question I know too well.

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Originally Published on Forbes (December 1, 2019)